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Blog item: Martin Luther King and Environmental Justice

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6 comments, last: Jan-16-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Jan-13-2009)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Pollution, Population Growth and Control

Martin Luther King in Memphis 1968 for the garbage workers' strike; click for a video of the mountaintop speech, his last public speechThose of us living in relative comfort may never have had to consider whether environmental problems are heaped disproportionately on those who are poor, or racial minorities, or disenfranchised immigrants.  But it is still the case today, and was even more so the case during the 1960s.

Rev. Martin Luther King became focused on this issue after he saw strong successes in his original goal of breaking down color lines.  It became clear to him that simply allowing minority children to attend integrated schools, and forcing public places such as lunch counters in stores to be integrated, did not solve a series of other problems.

One of these unsolved problems was the placement of toxic substances and treatment facilities in poor, ethnic, and minority neighborhoods, and giving the dirty work of the entire population to the poor without regard for their safety and well-being.  Probably not so well understood at that time, but typical of the issue and something I still hear about frequently here in New York City, are the lower standards by builders and city planners that have resulted in the dangerous problems of asthma and lead poisoning affecting minority and poor families disproportionately.  Here in New York City the minority asthma rate continues to be exacerbated by siting of bus terminals and major bus routes, and of waste treatment facilities, near the neighborhoods of those populations.

Suffice it to say that Dr. King and his fellow activists were aware of the overall problem and its many expressions back in the 1960s.  Dr. King was asked to help improve the working conditions of the garbage collection employees, all African-American (or I imagine there might have been one or two exceptions), who had terrible working conditions that often led to maiming and had recently killed two of the workers who were crushed inside their trucks.

Two of the excellent articles on this topic that I will point out here are in Daily Kos and in the National Archives (yes, from our US government).

We should remember that those small news items that appear from time to time in the middle class or wealthy world, represent an entire way of life for those who are forced to live near toxic dumps, breathing toxic air or drinking tainted water.  The health and human rights of each individual is a precious principle that our country, and all countries, should strive on a daily basis to attain.

As a final word I would like to expand the consideration here to include ALL the people of the United States and the planet.  We are all subjected to toxic or planet-damaging means of producing energy, such as coal and nuclear energy, all in the name of economic progress.  The best answer to the energy squeeze that is perceived and experienced can be debated, but the existence of a problem that affects ALL of us can not be denied.

This is not advocating that we freeze in winter rather than burn coal, but are we properly prioritizing such vital issues as developing alternative energy with a determination unmatched since the Manhattan Project of World War II?  Can we not focus our collective minds on solving our pollution and energy problems, while controlling population growth using whatever means are deemed suitable, so that we can all share a beautiful, compassionate, and healthful planet far into the future?

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-16-2009)   Web site
I did NOT know about - but now, thanks to GreenFootsteps, I am aware about that site and have made a suggestion there (among the points - 50% reduction in carbon dioxide output, by 2020).
Comment by:  Greengecko (Rona) (Jan-16-2009)   Web site

I expect you are all aware that you can potentially influence the Obama team by logging your ideas at

We really need to get some of the transition and permaculture ideas filtering through to communities so that we can start to live a less oil and money dependent existence.

I saw a film made by Bill Mollison last night (one of the originators of permaculture). One notable thing he said was "Pollution is just unused waste."

While everything is driven by profit -- and usually short-term profit -- we are going to carry on messing up this beautiful planet.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-15-2009)   Web site

Thanks for the comment, RA. I have not had a chance to follow closely the announcements made so far regarding the new Administration's unfolding environmental policy. I think we won't fully know it for six months or more, since the finer points will only start evolving when he enters office on January 20th.

Hopefully he will use his notable intelligence, and dedicate the time, to understand the issues a bit more thoroughly. My sense is that his advisers, and he himself, do not yet see the urgency behind some of the needed changes. Even there, I may be wrong, as Obama is good at presenting the level of action that people can tolerate, which right now is not very great. Once in office that too may begin to change as Obama gets a firmer set of connections going with legislators and other opinion-influencers.
Comment by: REAusetkmt (RE Ausetkmt) (Jan-15-2009)   Web site


You're insightful and clearly presenting a case that I hope Pres. Elect Obama gets to read. We'll be watching him closely - especially with his push toward Clean Coal. My hope is that he explores more local projects to green by locality.

There is so much that can be done to re-employ methods of local reclamation and recycling; that these should be near the top of that green to-do list he's making.

In Michigan the amount of trash that's buried from other states is staggering. Why? Economics my friend. Michigan has the land and they are working with the localities who are willing to kill their groundwater tables and future generations' building capacity; for the sake of a few dollars today.

When I was an undergrad at the the U. of Michigan School of Natural Resources in the early 70's one of the first things we participated in was a project to catalog the resources and problems in major urban areas like Detroit, Pontiac and Flint, MI. All of those areas are still suffering from brownfields and methane pockets.

Why not pump that gas out and burn it in homes, school buildings and municipal facilities ?

I will be hoping for a response from you, because when I come by to read your blog I always leave thinking - wow is that a smart guy.

You David Are Living the Reality - because You Remember The Dream.

Thanks for participating in the 09' MLK Remember The Dream Carnival - your contribution was perfect.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jan-13-2009)   Web site

Thank you David for this fine, thoughtful article. And Rona, I agree with you 100%!

There are too many examples of poor people suffering disproportionately due to environmental degradation to list them all. In the old days it used to be lead poisoning, with children in inner city schools situated beside busy roads the most likely to suffer. And today, here in Latin America, the poorest people end up in sub-standard housing, breathing in cement dust. Often the shanty towns are on precarious slopes, with the danger of a mudslide coming with every downpour.

The poor are more susceptible to natural disasters too. If a category 5 hurricane hits Haiti, hundred will die - although it will get little coverage. If the same storm hits Florida it will be a bigger story but with less loss of life. With climate change, such storms are set to become more common.

Unfortunately, unless we handle things properly, the solution to climate change will also hit the poor hardest. To combat climate change we need to reduce consumption considerably. (With some people consuming 30x more than others, reducing consumption is more urgent than reducing population.) But under the present system, reducing consumption means the mother of all recessions. And recessions hit the poor hardest.

You and I can live without a new 32" plasma television, but the factory worker in China cannot live without his job making them. In our plans to change the world for the better we need to give special thought to caring for such people.
Comment by:  Greengecko (Rona) (Jan-13-2009)   Web site

Environmental justice goes together with finding a more just and equitable financial system which seeks to re-invest profit for the benefit of all - not just a few.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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